The Reluctant Interplay of Science and Social Media

Recently, I had another in a long series of conversations with scientists about how they got into science so that they wouldn’t have to use any of their rusty social skills, only to find that social interaction, meetings, and now online communication were a huge part of their daily routine. The myth of the curmudgeon scientist holed up their lab seems to persist despite the current age of social media, perhaps because we scientists don’t seem to understand the appeal of Twitter (how do you include the p-value when you only have 140 characters?!). But in reality, a great deal of our time involves communication, and having practiced social etiquette can make or break you in an interview, at a conference, or at a project pitch meeting.

Many researchers wait until they are hired as assistant professors before they reluctantly make a website, start a blog, or even set up an email account for the lab. How disappointing it must be to wait all those years as a graduate student and a post-doctoral researcher, only to find that a website with your last name has already been taken! And what a hassle to have to generate blog posts, update project and personnel pages, and keep up with social media when you have just landed a professorship and are swamped with grant proposals, manuscripts from old projects that keep hanging around, comparison shopping for equipment to set your lab up, generating coursework for one or several courses, recruiting students…. It’s such a hassle that a friend of mine created an entire business around helping new professors create and manage an online presence: Tenure Chasers.

It really got me thinking, shouldn’t I be starting this?  It’s a little preemptive, after all, I’m a post-doctoral researcher without a lab of my own.  But it makes sense to start it now; for one thing, I have the time to devote to creating the mainframe.  For another, as a new researcher, I sometimes need to prove that I exist.  It seems like a silly thing to think about, but sometimes you need to prove that you are, in fact, a real researcher will real work experience and not just an email scam targeting disused academic email servers (happens quite often).  And hiring someone is a serious consideration, as research funds are limited, indirect costs for personnel make total personnel costs high, you are trusting this person with your research and your career reputation, and you may need to work with this person for several to many years.  It’s a commitment to hire a scientist, and you need to be sure about them.  Thus, having at least one thorough online profile, or better yet- connections to other well-known researchers, can give employers more confidence in you.

Finally, having an online presence improves your communication skills, and shows a commitment to outreach, which is a component in any career level of academia.  It helps to get your work out to other scientists, especially those outside your field whom you wouldn’t run into at a conference or seminar, and more importantly, it disseminates it to the general public.  Graduate school and post-doctoral positions are designed to teach and refine skills, and the skill of communication is no different.  So don’t wait until you really need it, start early and improve the quality of your social media presence, before anyone is paying attention.

 

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